Last week I talked about They Might Be Giants, a band that is routinely dismissed as a novelty act despite decades of well-written and serious-minded music. Although they haven’t been around nearly as long, I can see the same thing happening to California’s Tune-Yards, and I hope it doesn’t. Their biggest hit so far, “Water Fountain,” might be a goofy and danceable thing, but to dismiss them as only that would be criminal.
Tune-Yards is Merrill Garbus, a certified wunderkind from Connecticut, and her partner in crime Nate Brenner. Together they make… well, music that’s nearly impossible to describe. I barely know where to begin, so let’s just start with the first track on their excellent new record, I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life. The song is called “Heart Attack,” and at first glance, it’s another catchy ditty on par with “Water Fountain.” It begins with dissonant piano, then Garbus’ insidious vocal line: “You’re giving me a heart attack-ack-ack…”
But man, listen to the places this goes. The soulful verses, made up of nothing but percussion and bass. The stunning jazzy chords under Garbus’ wordless vocals. That moment when everything else disappears except a haunting string section, as Garbus sings “I’m only human.” The awesome dance music keyboard lines, leading to a huge crescendo that explodes as Garbus sings “don’t let me lose my soul.” It’s a complete journey in three minutes and 43 seconds, and it’s only the opening salvo.
The whole of Private Life is like this. Much of it will make you move – the bass lines are particularly slinky. But every few seconds, it goes somewhere new, giving your ears little gift-wrapped presents. None of this is empty studio wizardry. The songs come first, and every bit of stunning soundcraft is in service to them. Quite a bit of this reminded me of Esperanza Spalding’s bass-driven, jazz-inflected rock, but with much more electronic goodness sprinkled throughout.
Private Life is also a much darker and more political record than Tune-Yards’ previous efforts. This one seems to have soaked up the thick, depressing atmosphere of 2017, breathing it through its lungs and processing it in only the way Garbus and Brenner can. Take a straight-up masterwork like “Now as Then,” one of several songs about white privilege and its odious effects. “I am exceptional, I am an exception, I am the exception,” Garbus intones over the clattering intro before adding “that’s for me, that’s also for me.” As the music builds, a hundred Merrill Garbuses sing out the chorus: “Don’t trust me that I won’t take all the money and run.” The solo piano that breaks through the din is chilling.
“Colonizer” is darker and even more self-critical. Its opening beat sounds like a factory machine stomping on frogs, but as the nimble bass line kicks in, Garbus sings this: “I use my white woman’s voice to tell stories of travels with African men, I comb my white woman’s hair with a comb made especially for me…” The music becomes as uncomfortable as the words, the whirring percussion and Garbus’ nearly-muted screams take over. After that, you need the full-on beat-crazy chant of “Look at Your Hands,” which serves as a perfect release of tension.
The second half gets even darker, with slower crawls like “Home” and “Hammer” hopefully dispelling any remaining notion that Tune-Yards are purveyors of silly ditties. Even a closing track called “Free” is full of tension, its halfway-jubilant vocal cascade drowned out by an overdriven bass. “I’m alive and seething and I’m coming back for you,” Garbus sings before shouting “Don’t tell me I’m free.” It’s unsettling, like itchy skin, and somehow the perfect conclusion to this tricky, fantastic little record. (As a final grace note, the last few seconds find Garbus counting in the opening of “Heart Attack,” bringing the album full circle.)
I know it’s January, and this is a ridiculous statement, but I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life is my favorite album of 2018 so far. Garbus is a one-of-a-kind wizard, and she and Brenner have made their best, most pointed, most powerful record here, one that is as easy to admire as it is to love.
* * * * *
While Tune-Yards keep moving forward, the Shins seem stuck in place. And I don’t just mean because their sixth album is their fifth album all over again.
When James Mercer and his band burst out of the underground in the early 2000s, they were a breath of fresh air. Here was a delightful combination of lo-fi indie-pop and Brian Wilson grandeur, with indelible melodies to match. Even as their budgets grew and their ambitions skyrocketed, they made terrific records. 2007’s Wincing the Night Away is a highly underrated piece of work.
And then Mercer dismissed the entire original band and re-cast the Shins as a one-man show with a rotating cast of assistants, and the bottom fell out. I probably gave Mercer a lot more credit for the early Shins material than I should have, considering how boring his work since has been. His voice is still distinctive and compelling, but his songs have all but evaporated, leaving empty shells of the music he once made. Before revisiting it for this column, I could hardly remember last year’s Heartworms. I again found it typical and lazy.
So why would I be interested in a second version of that same album? I have no idea, but Mercer believes I should be. The Worm’s Heart is a “flipped” re-take of Heartworms – it features all the same songs with new arrangements, sequenced in reverse order. Press materials for the album made it sound like the fast songs had been rendered slow while the slow songs played faster, but there aren’t slow songs and fast songs. The whole album is a mid-tempo mush, and it remains that way on The Worm’s Heart.
Some of the new takes feel like they should be interesting. The title track is given an ‘80s makeover with buzzing synths and harmonies. “Dead Alive” is played with pianos and keyboard strings. “Cherry Hearts,” still the most memorable thing on the album, has a live-band, almost garage-y feel. Country stumble “Mildenhall” is here rendered as an organ-driven bit of rock and roll that is somehow more annoying than the original. My favorite part of Heartworms, the “da-da, da-da” refrain of “Rubber Ballz,” survives intact, here accompanied by acoustic guitar. Obviously a lot of thought has been put into new ways to play these tunes.
But I can’t help but think that all that effort should have been put into writing better songs. I’d care more about The Worm’s Heart if I liked the source material, and this backwards walk through it didn’t deepen my appreciation for it. Instead of a revelatory document, I now have two versions of 11 songs I don’t care about, and two versions of that garish cover. And I’m still hoping that the next Shins release will be better.
* * * * *
That’ll do for this week. Next week, the new Listener, and whatever else strikes me over the next seven days. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.